Reporting from the Denver Film Festival.
When it comes to cinematic landscapes, few are as iconic—or at least as mined—as Monument Valley. Located in northern Arizona, home to the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley was placed in the geography of cinema when John Ford shot Stagecoach there in 1939. It was the first of seven films Ford would set in Monument Valley, solidifying the massive buttes as place markers of the American West, regardless if the story took place in Northern Arizona, Southern Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and so on.
Ford’s cachet with modern-day moviegoers has sipped significantly, but for the first half of cinema’s history, he was a titan. Those who followed wanted to walk in his footsteps. When Sergio Leone, the Italian filmmaker who helped popularize the Spaghetti Western, made his American epic, Once Upon a Time in the West, he made sure to capture Monument Valley in all of its mythic splendor.
But a myth is a story, one that favors one perspective at the exclusion of many others. The Taking, the latest cinematic study from writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe, shows how Ford’s westerns fabricated something iconic out of something stolen. Philippe tries to gather some of those perspectives left out, adding them to the chorus of scholarly voices dissecting Ford’s films and how other filmmakers and advertisers mined them to create something wholly American.
The images come primarily from Ford films, with plenty of supporting evidence from other movies—most of which mimic Ford. There is some new footage, shot during the past couple of years, but even these additions are void of the faces and places the scholars decry being left out in the first place, which leaves The Taking feeling flat at points. It’s as if the only thing of interest to say is that white American settlers have colonized not only the land but also the mental real estate associated with it. That’s certainly true, but far from new.
Where The Taking works are the moments where the scholars analyze the films themselves. One points out that the way Ford shot Monument Valley, specifically the Mitten Buttes, in The Searchers, physically and psychologically neuters the progress the search party makes. Ford uses the buttes to underline that they are going in circles. That perfectly illustrates the headspace John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards inhabits throughout that movie: A man who keeps rolling one event in his head over and over again until he finds what he’s looking for right under his nose.
There’s a lot in Ford movies that goes overlooked these days. As if modern audiences can’t imagine that the same person who laid the foundation of the movie western could also be capable of criticizing it. For me, that’s what makes Ford films so damn interesting.
But The Taking isn’t as interested in that. It’s looking for something else, but can’t quite find it. A shame; it’s so easy to pick apart a Ford movie. It’s also easy to overlook that Ford was doing the same thing all those years ago.
The Taking is playing the Denver Film Festival on Friday, Nov. 5 at 6:45 p.m. and on Saturday, Nov. 6 at 4:15 p.m.